Friday, November 30, 2007
three long years and counting! will life get better?
Photo today, three years have made a difference! hasn't it?
Today November 30th 2007 marks the 3rd anniversary of my return to Sri Lanka to live permanently. Those who attended my farewell party at 70 Addison Road, Holland Park in Kensington on Nov 28th 2004 will more than appreciate the contrast in life style. I was living in the most expensive neighborhood in the world per sq ft. where hardly a house sells for less than 10mill pounds, with billionaires, royalty and rock stars for neighbors. I left my job as the country manager in the UK for Dilmah Tea and had given over 6 months notice to that fact, so it was not a sudden or hasty decision.
I had just returned from a road trip in my Jaguar XJ6, a day earlier via Euro tunnel to France, Switzerland and Spain as a final flourish to finish a generation of living in England and the USA since 1971.
The security situation in Sri Lanka with the ongoing civil war was never an issue with my decision to return. All the years away since 1971 Sri Lanka has been beset with war first with JVP then with the LTTE. I just wanted to live a life that was as far different to what I was used to so I could both appreciate how the majority of Sri Lankans live and if there was anything I could learn from that, I would only benefit. I have yet to achieve a balance and the work is not finished. What I have is a unique insight into life that few have the privilege of knowing and I expect to write something about this in my perspective. I have a level of knowledge of some ground realities that either politicians or people in better circumstances don’t appreciate.
Also remember that barely three weeks into my arrival the December 26th 2004 Tsunami, the worst natural disaster ever to hit Sri Lanka, occurred.
Today I just returned from a week at my now usual residence, Kumbuk Thuduwa in the village of Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda in the Polonnaruwa district. The property was bought for $6000 and the house both living quarters and kitchen built for less than $2000. I don’t have electricity or plumbing, but somehow manage to attain a level of satisfaction I have not found anywhere.
My current account balance is only Rs500 and my savings account balance is just Rs250,
with nothing in overseas accounts and no investments or deposits of any sort. However I have to work 7days a week, to grow food in two locations, buy food from neighbors, then transport them carefully and sell them both in my shop in Godagama, Meegoda and at homes and small fruit shops in Colombo. This enterprise cannot be carried out alone, and I have to pay wages to 12 people, which means that 35 mouths are fed as a result of what I do, sadly I cannot measure the quantity of moonshine consumed from this payroll due to the very high level of alcoholism here including my workforce.
I am down to a weight I wished to achieve of 11 stone, the lowest I have been in over 20 years. However this is probably more due to parsimonious eating habits and manual work, rather than being on a diet. I generally eat only what I produce, and hence hardly ever have any type of meat, sodas, or ice creams, cakes and junk foods, all of which I used to live on in my past life. This has not been easy at all, and I would be lying if I said I don’t long for that, and especially Japanese food, namely Sushi which I used to eat often. Arguably that is the most expensive food in Sri Lanka, and have been fortunate to be invited out for a few of such meals.
I have never worked harder in my life for so little, meaning, I have not had the luxury of earning anything for myself personally as yet. I know that human beings are adaptable and can make adjustments in lifestyle to suit circumstances. What I had not bargained for was the level of unpredictability of harvest and sales due to the weather factor. I feel I have had to face all the problems one could imagine. I have had cows die due to unusual illnesses, I have hundreds of banana trees fall due to excess rain, I have had my coconut and king coconut trees go into an annual hibernation period, I have had loads of vegetable beds constantly dying of disease, before any yield, other vegetables infested with worms, as I don’t usually put pesticides and weedicides. To add to the woes almost 5 months of continuous rains in Colombo affected the sales of King Coconuts, my main crop, not consumed by Sri Lankans in wet weather.
Most of all I had not countered on the fact that the workers on the farm in Godagama were so unproductive, partly as a result of years working for my father, who had not run the establishment as a viable venture. I have singularly failed to change their habits and only staff I have recruited since my return carrying the extra load. It is almost impossible to get rid of this staff, waiting instead till they melt away!!!
I have had to rely on my workhorse vehicle, my only means of transport, the Tata truck with a one ton capacity for all my daily activities. I have purchased it on a four year lease, and therefore there is a further year of payments, but the problems I have had with this vehicle have also lead to high repair costs, and bear in mind it has done over 90K kilometers in the past three years. It does not have air conditioning or even a radio let alone a CD player.
On a positive side, I have built a large water tank with over 100 cu ft and a unique shop in the farm in Godagama. I have built the basic infrastructure at my main home in Raja Ela, which is still a work in progress, with a bathroom planned for next year. I have also built a unique forest lodge on the borders of a National Park, is about 4 months and about $5,000 away from completion if I can raise the funds, which is an ideal place to base oneself if watching and studying elephants is one object or total relaxation in the middle of the jungle is another. See the web site www,ratmale.blogspot.com for information on that property. All this therefore has kept me very busy. The construction costs in Sri Lanka are going up so fast that I am glad I have completed the bulk of my construction activity.
Especially considering the miniscule investment I began this venture with,, I have achieved a miracle. It has essentially been achieved, by my living on air and nothing else, working very hard with little time to relax has been quite a sacrifice and has been worth it.
On the down side, on a more personal level, by living a poor peasant’s life I was hopeful of meeting a soul mate to share my life, and have singularly failed in that regard. There have been a few near misses, which looking back have been blessings in disguise. I am of course ever hopeful of getting lucky at some point though I don’t know, when that will be!!!
I have not yet achieved break even status, and in order to fill the shortfall in my cash flow, I have had to do a supplementary job as an advisor on farming and financial matters, at an Organic farm in Kitulgala and find export markets for their unique organic green tea. I am also looking into the feasibility of establishing an export processing establishment for the export of fresh fruit pulp to customers in Europe.
In conclusion my initial goal of living only a peasants life in Polonnaruwa was not achieved, though I think I would have been happier at that, as I would probably have had a better quality of life with much less stress than now. The main stress I have is the management of people, a very Sri Lankan problem. However the fact that my efforts keep 35 mouths fed, with mine having the least to eat! Is still an achievement in itself. If I have laid the foundation for growth of the business, whereby I can run this operation on auto pilot and still achieve my desired goal, albeit a few years later than anticipated that would then be all worthwhile. I am in the unique position of having a ready market but my problem is the lack of supply, most entrepreneurs have the product but not the market.